What kind of collective madness brings thousands of people together on the dawn of mid-summer’s day at megaliths like Stonehenge? Ask each one of them, and you will get a different answer…..like asking different people what chocolate tastes like (apart from nice, that is). The annual call to madness gets a hold of me too, but I celebrate the moment in a rather different way.
Some 30 years ago, I began the habit of setting off on the bike at sunset, about 21.20, riding through to sunrise, about 04.45, stopping mid-ride for a rest and refreshment (which I had to carry with me) and arriving back home something after 05.00. I would crash out for a few hours and be at my place of work by 08.30, ready to take my first class. (Alastair Humphreys might call this a ‘micro-adventure‘). Since those distant beginnings, a few things have changed. One year I took a small group of students with me, encountered a mid-summer car rally at midnight (scary, to say the least), waxed lyrical over a perfect sunrise, lay down on the warm surface of a normally busy road, and ended up in the school outdoor pool at 05.30 (having climbed over the fence….). The lads jumped in and immediately disappeared beneath the thick carpet of mist covering the pool. Health & Safety, if it had existed, would have had a field day!
Another year I headed south and had a mid-ride rest outside Castle Ashby, a rather splendid country manor in Northamptonshire. The whole place was ablaze with light and music, and I’d arrived in time for a mid-summer all-nighter…… but, damn, I didn’t think lycra would have counted as fancy dress.
Another year, I again heard music wafting across the countryside, and as I wended my way along the dark lanes, it got closer and closer. At its loudest point, I stopped to look for its source, but couldn’t see any dwellings in the vicinity, until I spied what looked like chicken sheds, ablaze with light and music. I learned afterwards that light and music through the night kept the chickens laying…..
So what have I learned from years of night riding through mid-summer nights? First of all, it never fully gets dark, even as far south as Cambridgeshire, so you can actually ride through the night without lights to see by……though be ready to switch them on should a vehicle come by. Secondly, wild life never actually goes to sleep or even goes silent during the night. You have to be prepared for all kinds creatures lurking on, and beside, the road. They can scare the life out of you, dashing across your path and squawking in panic. After all, I wasn’t supposed to be there! And finally (for now anyway) the coldest moment in the night is just before the sunrise, and it will remain cool for another hour or so. So be prepared…..
Last year, I rang another change to my routine. I rode out after sunset and found a small rural redundant church to sleep in, and discovered another truth. If you have never slept in an empty church, be aware that they are not silent places. If you are of a nervous disposition, and not sure about ghosts, this may not be for you. In the morning, I stepped out to a glorious view of the sunrise across the countryside.
This year, I rang yet another change, and decided to combine it with a ‘flash-dash’ ride. This is my name for the following: you look at the forecast for the next few days, discover the weather is going to be fine and verify the wind direction, and ‘in a flash’ you decide to take a bus/train to a starting point, then start ‘making a dash’ for home (or other destination) with fine weather and the wind on your side. It’s great. This was my fifth flash-dash ride, and it never fails. Last weekend (the solstice weekend) I caught a train over to Norwich, with the promise of two days of fine weather and a tailwind all the way back home. Crazy……
The 197 km trip took me through some fascinating places like Wymondham (pronounced ‘Windum’), Thetford Forest, Mildenhall, and an array of old Norfolk and Suffolk villages with their flintstone churches and occasional ruins of priories and abbeys. And the night I camped on the perimeter of RAF Mildenhall airfield rewarded me with the most perfect sunset……and a bit of plane-spotting, to boot.
I was once asked why I liked riding bikes so much, and I’m sure they were expecting the obvious: ‘countryside, freedom, exercise ….’. But my reply was even more obvious: ‘because I like cake’!….😃.QED
After the rains, the rivers rise, the countryside turns an intense shade of green, and the crops burst into sudden growth. Muntjac diced with death crossing roads, skylarks sang in disjointed harmony, and the last of the flowering beans still wafted their heady scents.
This is a magical time to be travelling the lanes….
When I completed my End-to-End of Japan in 2015, I was prompted to submit an article about the experience to Cycle Magazine, the monthly publication of Cycling UK which, with a membership of some 70,000, can claim to be the biggest and most representative body of cyclists in the UK.
Dan Joyce, the editor, duly thanked me for my submission, but couldn’t find a space for it at the time, and said he would archive it for future reference. Four years later I received an email from Dan saying he was ready to use the article and……could he pay me for it….! To say I was startled is an understatement…
Over the many years I have been riding a bike ‘in anger’, I have written a lot of articles for various publications, both long and short, but had always written them for fun and the simple joy of writing, and never once expected payment. So the offer of payment on this occasion came as a kind of revelation…… people actually do this stuff for a living! Of course, I knew that already but, like road accidents and winning the lottery, I never expected it to happen to me. So, a couple of hours penning an article earned me the cost of a couple of West End theatre tickets, and a post-theatre meal. I’ll have to do more…. after all, I do like theatre and eating!
So assuming you are not a subscriber to Cycle Magazine, here is the said article…..
A favourite route of mine is to take in four counties in one ride, and I can do this because I live on the borders of three (Bedfordshire, Northamptonshire and Cambridgeshire) and am within striking distance of the fourth, Buckinghamshire. To boot, it passes some fascinating places, such as Santa Pod
Castle Ashby, formerly the family seat of the Marquess of Northamptonshire
on through Olney in Buckinghamshire, once home of John Newton, author of the universally sung hymn ‘Amazing Grace’, and famed for its annual pancake races
and finally through Turvey, now home of the Benedictine Turvey Abbey.
and herewith the 52 mile (83km) route, almost entirely on quiet country roads…
…..disguise yourself as a cyclist? he said. As I stood there in my lycra, astride my Litespeed Ti, I looked up at him and replied: ‘Oh, I’m not sure about that…..how do I do that?
I had gone out for a Sunday morning spin (yesterday in fact) and had forgotten all about the Tour of Cambridgeshire, a sportive that was being run on closed roads to the north of my village. I came across the first road block, and blagged my way through it. I took a diversionary turn off and came across yet another road block (‘Damn these cyclists’ I muttered under my breath……ah, said a little voice over my shoulder, but you are one!). Yes, but don’t let the truth spoil a good curse…….
I took another diversionary route until I had to come back on myself and, of course, met the first road blockage yet again on my way back…..but this time the thick end of an 8000 rider peloton was just coming through.
‘Am I OK to just drop down this stretch to the other end of the village?’ I asked one of the marshals. ‘Can you disguise yourself as a cyclist?’ he asked. ‘How do I do that?’, I said, playing along with his sense of humour…….
He laughed. ‘Well you look like a sensible sort of guy…..just pretend you are a stupid sportive rider who’s paid £80 entry to come and ride his own bike…. that should do you fine’.
So I hopped into the 8000 strong bunch, pretending to be stupid, for about 1km……saving myself about 50p on the entry fee…..
My journey today to meet up with the bunch at a remote tearoom took me into deepest, darkest fen country…..the absolute bane of a cyclist’s road life if the wind is against ….and let’s face it, it nearly always is….isn’t it?
As I approached the tearoom near Farcet, having followed an arrow-straight drain for about 10 miles, I was amusingly informed by a sign that the road was called Straight Drove….. ha! good to know someone on the local council has a sense of humour….
But…..and I emphasise ‘but’….for the 25 miles out there, I had a tailwind, which on the flat of the fens means you eat the miles in great mouthfuls….. But guess what? There was a 25 mile trek to get home again….so, without putting too fine a point on it, I was in despair.
But I have to admit, it was a freely chosen, and self inflicted despair….so I expect no sympathy.
Jenny has taken on the locally inspired challenge of the ‘100 miles in May’ walk to help celebrate the 100th birthday of Save the Children, and because of the celebration of her (and her twin brother’s) significant birthday last weekend, she lost nearly 4 days of her schedule, so she has been playing catch-up in the last few days.
So her ‘coach’ steps into the breech, and he decides she needs a pacer…..so now, once again, I am confronted with the differential that seems to be constant in the world of travel. What on earth am I talking about?
Several years ago, after cycling from home to Istanbul, on the flight home it occurred to me that the distance the jet plane would have taken to fly the 4 hours out to Istanbul, took me 4 weeks on the bike, and would have taken about 4 days in a car. Which meant that, in the time it took a passenger on the plane to be served drinks and a meal (about an hour), it would take me about a week to travel that distance on the bike.
So what of the world of walking…. a cyclist will (very roughly) travel at four times the speed of a walker, and cover four times the distance. So what it takes an averagely fit cyclist to cycle in a day, may take 4 days for a walker.
So, how does all this sit with Einstein’s theory of relativity? Does this mean the cyclist ages marginally slower than the walker, and the jet passenger ages the slowest of all? If so, how does that affect the longevity of pilots and cabin crew?
While you are pondering the conundrum, here are the stats for today’s 5 mile walk….
A tandem rider is stopped by a police car. “What’ve I done, officer?” asks the rider.”Perhaps you didn’t notice sir, but your wife fell off your bike half a mile back . . .””Oh, thank God for that,” says the rider – “I thought I’d gone deaf!”
So, what happens when 120 tandem riders gather together for a weekend of tandeming? (In this case, in the Wye Valley). It probably means that cafes are cleared of their cakes, and pubs have to connect new barrels in the cellar…..tandemists are seldom teetotal.
Oh, yes of course, and a few miles are cycled, and several unforgiving hills are climbed….and if you want unforgiving hills, go to the Wye Valley….you’ll be spoilt for choice. They are so steep sometimes that even descending can be a hazard on just V-brakes….when rims heat up, the scene is set for a blow-out….but it didn’t happen this time…
And we had to pay a visit to an old haunt….St Briavels Castle, a former hunting lodge of the infamous King John (now a Youth Hostel)….the last time I stayed there, I slept in the hanging room…..but relieved to learn it was only used for hanging the game…😊
As I was heading out to Gamlingay this morning, to meet up with the ‘Slugs’ to ‘chew the fat’ over enormous cappuccinos and plates of scrambled eggs, I met with one of those conundrums that frequently blights the, otherwise, joyous life of the cyclist….the false flat. Yes, I do mean the ‘false flat’….
What the eyes see ahead does not always match the painful drag of having to turn those pedals under pressure, sometimes for several miles. Your eyes tell you the road ahead is flat…..but your legs know the truth. You switch down a gear or two, and you grind your way along. It can be very frustrating…..
Even more frustrating when you are in the high mountains, of the Alps or Pyrenees, and your eyes tell you that you are going downhill, but you’re not, in fact you’re having to pedal hard. This is a serious ‘disconnect’ for the brain to cope with….and if you don’t end up blaspheming to the four corners of the earth, you’ll be in line for canonisation by the Pope himself….
Steady on, my friend….a Durham man (such as me) might take offence… But, without doubt, when it comes to wind,
no one would quibble, especially when your outward leg of the day is going west to the café at Manvell Fishery in Walgrave,
leaving you to face 25 miles of dispiriting head wind on the way home…..
There’s no justice in the world….well, in the world of cycling, at least.
Poetry it is not, but a greasy-spoon cafe does its little bit to lift the spirits
…. then open the heart
….and then tempt you to indulge your fancies in a bid to live a ‘full and purposeful’ life…
…all in the tiny space of a WC…
Ah, time to totally use up and wear out the body….!
I sometimes submit articles to journals and, in the undefined period before publication (next month I’ll have another one published by Cycle Magazine that’s been in the editor’s archives for three years), I forget that I’ve written and submitted them.
So, a few weeks ago, when I opened the current Tandem Club Journal, I turned to a page and began reading an article, wondering (at first) why it seemed so familiar to me (had I read it before in another journal?)……then it dawned on me……I myself had written it!!
I submit it here for your perusal……
Total distance cycled in 2018: 11,141km/6,844 miles. Unidirectional equivalent: Bergen(Norway) to Vladivostok (eastern Siberia)
I have to admit, I am in a phase of regression…..
At a drinks party over the festive season, I was in conversation with a contemporary about my habits of travelling on two wheels. By way of response to some of the things I said, I heard the following:
“Really, you travel all by yourself? What happens if you get sick or have an accident?…… You don’t have a support vehicle to carry your kit? But you must have hotel rooms booked in advance at least? No? You mean, you have no idea where you are going to stay each night? Aren’t you worried about your own safety…….?”
And so it went on. And this is only one example of dozens of similar conversations I’ve had with people of my own generation over the years which, not surprisingly, pigeonholes me as some kind of weirdo, a man out of synch with his contemporaries. Years ago, adventure travel for me amounted to nothing wilder than staying in youth hostels, travelling economy class, and eating at the cheapest restaurants. But I now find I am wanting to push back the boundaries, back to my penniless days, to experience the simplicity of independent travel, finding the food and drink I need wherever it is available, laying my head down where nature allows me, and accepting kindness and hospitality whenever it is freely proffered.
I will never aspire to be a desert-crossing, Antarctica-sledging, Himalaya-scaling kind of adventure traveller, but my comfort zone is definitely in long-distance solo cycle-trekking, with minimal luggage and few concrete plans other than knowing my general direction of travel, the pace of which is governed only by the date printed on my return ticket to the UK. For some, enough to inspire fear and anxiety, for me, liberating and energising.
After chewing the fat with a crowd of cycling buddies over coffee and cakes at Elton Hall Garden Centre, I headed home via the ancient village of Fotheringhay, with its legendary connections with Richard III and the execution of Mary Queen of Scots.
As I crossed the ancient packhorse bridge, I passed this group casting lines with metal discs into the water. And yes, I had to ask what they were up to…..and discovered they were ‘pescatorial detectorists’ doing what is commonly called ‘magnet fishing’. And no, that doesn’t mean fishing for magnets, but using strong magnets to fish for metal objects, preferably of a historic and valuable kind.
The only catch of the morning had been a rusty old horseshoe….but they continued casting their magnets with enthusiasm.
I celebrated the summer solstice this year by cycling out to a decommissioned church and spending the night in its hallowed emptiness. This was followed by a ride home as the sun’s orb rose above the north eastern horizon at 04.44am.
A few days ago, on the 21st, as the northern hemisphere reached the nadir of its tilt away from the sun, I set out on a symmetrical ride to observe the winter solstice, and found that Santa had solved his transport problem in the event of a snowless Christmas…
…he misses nothing in his forward planning…very impressive. Present deliveries are now assured…
I wish you all a very happy Christmas, and many happy miles in 2019….and thanks for your company.
I have just finished preparing an illustrated account of my adventure riding from Vancouver to Mexico. It’s a fascinating story (well, I think so!), and I will be taking it to a couple of local groups in the near future.
If you are a member of one such group, or know of similar groups, that like to invite speakers to their meetings, I am happy to entertain locations around West Cambridgeshire, East Northamptonshire and North Bedfordshire.
The story will be of interest to both cyclists and non-cyclists alike. It is principally the story of a journey, with only passing references to riding a bike.
Contact me via a ‘Comment’ on this blog…… (look for the ‘Leave a comment’ icon at the bottom of each post.)
Unlike many memoirs of long journeys, Tim Moss’s narrative of cycling around the world with his wife, Laura, is a real page-turner. Long journeys, by their very nature, provide a lot of material of a repetitive kind, so finding your voice as an author and keeping the reader plugged in is a fine balancing act. The narrative needs momentum, it requires twists and turns, and variations of speed……just like a bicycle ride in fact, except that the really interesting things often happen off the bike, in the variety of vignettes that pepper the journey, giving us an insight into the lives and personalities of the travellers themselves, as well as a flavour of the terrain and people they encounter en route.
Being a long-distance cyclist myself, I know what it’s like to be 8-10 hours a day on the road. During those long lonely hours your mind is filled with inconsequentials like: ‘how far till the next stop, where’s the next foodstore, will this hill never end, should I sleep in this wood or look for the grounds of a temple?’. Your attention, in fact, is entirely focused on survival……which in itself doesn’t make a great story. It’s when you stop thinking about yourself and survival, and turn your attention outwards…..that’s where the real story is, and Tim has created a narrative that keeps you turning the pages.
A great read, for both cyclists and non-cyclists, and a great 5 minute trailer below.
Waresley Garden Centre cafe, where I met up with one of my mid-week groups, has the best scones in the area, and today they were offering an unusual raspberry and chocolate variety…..but I resisted the clotted cream…..don’t ask me why….I must have been on a mission to appear virtuous.
And the quality of the cafe offerings was matched by the perfect autumnal weather, the countryside bedecked in the orange, gold and crimson of a soon to disappear seasonal feast. Carpe diem…..